Michiko Kakutani: On the Difference Between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush

Roundup: Talking About History

Michiko Kakutani, in the NYT, in the course of a review of a new biography of Bill Clinton (John F. Harris's The Survivor), 5-31-05:

... Although Mr. Harris notes that all presidents must "play the hand they are dealt," he adds that the greatest ones "manage simultaneously to create their own circumstances - to impose their own values and purposes on the age." Mr. Clinton did not manage to do this, he suggests, in part because he exhibited "a certain passivity" in office, subjecting issues to agonizing debate and often allowing them to drift before choosing his ultimate course: "This was his pattern in the Balkans in 1993 and 1994, in the confrontation with Republicans in 1995, and in deciding what to do about welfare reform in 1996. Those episodes all ended to his advantage. The same passivity was on display as he confronted the Paula Jones case in 1997, with disastrous results."

A similar case can be made about his handling of terrorism. Mr. Clinton was well aware of the threat; "terrorism is the enemy of our generation, and we must prevail," he declared in 1996. But when his pleas for more urgent and imaginative initiatives against Osama bin Laden were met with resistance from the military and federal bureaucracy, Mr. Harris says, he exhibited a "willingness to yield rather than confront obstacles within his own government."

In Mr. Harris's opinion, one of the most egregious examples of Mr. Clinton's passivity involved Louis J. Freeh, the director of the F.B.I., with whom he had an adversarial relationship. "It would not have been possible for an F.B.I. director to hold hostage a president with a scrupulous personal reputation," Mr. Harris writes. "Nor should a responsible president have allowed himself to be held hostage - no matter the firestorm that would have resulted. The president's refusal to assert the authority that belonged to him over the F.B.I. and insist that the agency become a fully cooperative partner in the campaign against terrorism was a critical abdication of leadership."

Given his view of Mr. Clinton's tendency toward passivity, Mr. Harris concludes that people like the White House chief of staff, Thomas F. McLarty III, and Secretary of State Warren Christopher who tried to read and respond to their boss's wishes ran into problems, whereas "people who sized up his political problems, then told him - with absolute conviction and no hedging - what he should do" won the president's confidence. Thus did Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, whose certitude about deficit reduction quieted the president's own doubts, develop what Mr. Harris calls "probably the most consequential policy relationship of Clinton's first year." Thus did the political adviser Dick Morris, armed with prescriptions based on polling data, become an influential force in the White House after the Democratic rout of 1994.

Along the way, this book points up some similarities between Mr. Clinton and his successor in the White House, George W. Bush: a retail politician's ability to connect with ordinary people, an estrangement from the Washington establishment, a prickly relationship with the press. But it is the differences between the two men that stand out most starkly: Mr. Clinton's efforts "to capture the center while trying to tame the more ideological elements of his party," in contrast to Mr. Bush's efforts to appeal to his party's ideological base; Mr. Clinton's belief that the United States was usually "better served exerting influence by persuasion and by acting in a community of nations," in contrast to Mr. Bush's embrace of unilateral initiatives.

The starkest contrast between the two men, Mr. Harris argues, lies "in the nature of their minds." He sees Mr. Bush as a classic hedgehog who knows one big thing - someone who possesses the certainty that leadership involves the pursuit of "right with sufficient devotion in the face of setbacks and criticism." He sees Mr. Clinton, in contrast, as a classic fox who knows many things - someone who is "driven less by ideology than by experience and contingency," someone whose words and actions "could at times seem contradictory," whose true intentions and priorities remain "opaque even to the people closest to him."

"In the Clinton and Bush presidencies," Mr. Harris writes near the end of this useful if predictable volume, "history has crafted an experiment of sorts about which model of leadership is more productive." He suggests that the book on Mr. Clinton's legacy is not yet closed - that the "cycles of decline and revival" his reputation has already undergone since leaving office will be affected by one as yet unknown factor: Hillary Rodham Clinton's political future.

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